The Evolution of Khao San Road in Bangkok

Thailand

Khao San Road has long been like the slutty girl from college you know you should avoid. Half the guys you know have slept with her. She smokes, she’s loud when she gets drunk, she dresses badly, everything taken to excess.

Oh, but she’s always fun…and it’s just so darn easy.

When I first visited Bangkok, Thailand in the early 1990s, Khao San Road was already well-established as the backpacker crossroads of the world. We ended up back there a few more times on our first round-the-world trip and ran into some of the same people each time. It was crazy, crowded, and already derided as a “travel ghetto.” Tuk-tuk driver scams were rampant, the food wasn’t very imaginative, and the cheap guesthouses were nothing to get excited about. It was the place with the greatest density of what travelers wanted and needed though, all within a few minutes walk.

Thailand hotelPretty much all of this is still true, but on a larger scale. It’s now the Khao San Road Area because it has grown like a blob and eaten up several surrounding streets. We stayed at Villa Cha Cha hotel, whose entrance is three blocks away, but the back side of it has a bar and restaurant that’s now in the heart of the action, open 24 hours a day. (Nice hotel, by the way, if you’re a mid-range traveler. We paid around $50 per night for three, with A/C, Wi-Fi, hot showers, fridge, and a nice swimming pool. They let us check in really early too after we flew all the way from the U.S.)

Of course you still have to go through six or eight taxis to find one that will use the meter in this area and yes, you can still buy a fake diploma or student card. You don’t need an ID to buy alcohol and one place even has this fact on all the staff t-shirts.

There are some new developments that seem a bit strange. The massage places now spill into the street: apparently some people don’t mind getting a rubdown lying next to dozens of others while a parade of people walks by. There are more chain restaurants and air conditioned shops. More street stalls jammed into limited real estate.

KSR is a microcosm of what has changed in the travel world in general. The few Asians we used to see before (almost always Japanese) are far more numerous, with Koreans, Chinese, and even Vietnamese backpackers on the move. There are flashpackers trying in vain to move down the crowded cart-filled streets with hard shell rolling suitcases instead of backpacks. You see parties of four all playing with their iPhones instead of talking to each other or meeting the people at the next table. And overall, there’s just more money being spent.

I’m one of those people now, the kind I used to look at as “those tourists” who had more money than time. Now I have three weeks and a bigger budget, so I’m making the most of it. We spent a few nights in an apartment on the Sky Train line off Sukumvit Road, visiting malls and mingling with the crowds staying at Hyatts and Sofitels. But it wasn’t the same. Despite all its flaws, its ugliness, and its sprawling madness, Khao San Road is just, well, more fun. I shouldn’t keep returning to her, but she’s just so easy…

Oh yeah, and you’re a short hop away from all this:

Comments
  1. TingTong

    KSR = The Fisherman’s Wharf of Bangkok

  2. Jacob B.

    It’s the kind of place people love to hate on, but they end up there anyway after they try staying somewhere else in Bangkok. Nowhere else has everything you need in one place like KSR does. Last time I was there I booked two flights, got train tickets, got visas for another country, bought two t-shirts I love, got a new book to read, had two massages, and took care of all my online business. And got drunk, yes. All within a few blocks.

  3. TravelingFirefighter

    You mentioned you stayed at an apartment off of sukumvit road. Do you have the name of that apt. please? I am looking for a serviced apt. off of sukumvit near the skytrain for my upcoming visit to BKK and could use a recommendation or two. Budget – Mid range pricing. Thank you.

    • tim

      We rented our apartment through Wimdu.com. They’re like AirBnB, but have much more inventory in that region. I’m not sure the direct link will work, but here’s the title of the one we rented, which was $55 per night plus the service fee. For two full bedrooms. There are 49 listed currently and if you don’t need that much space, you can spend less for sure.

      “2br Sukhumvit-skytrain-wifi-BITEC”

  4. Mike

    Its funny. I am an old man and visited Bangkok the first time in 1973. None of the “Western influences” had transpired. It was a city that actually operated khlongs for the population, not tourists and conducted business on the many canals. One of my all time favorite restaurants “Nick’s Number One”, straight out of a Humphrey Bogart movie was an experience, I will never forget. The poverty that existed then was depressing, but the people always maintained smiles. I still have memories though, of a city that thrived with activity and was a golden nugget in SE Asia. Hopefully when I return I won’t get distressed at the changes.

    • tim

      Well, those days are gone for sure Mike, but then again so is much of that poverty, so it’s a trade-off. Bangkok is growing up, getting richer, and absorbing 10X the travelers they did when I first went through.

  5. valentin

    Khao San or Khao Sarn actually mean “rice mill”; the street was once a center for trading rice. Later, the street became known as “Religious Road” because of several shops that catered to the needs of monks. A tiny guesthouse opened in the early 1980s and from there the street exploded into one of the busiest travel epicenters in the world.

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